Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

Vincent van Gogh might never have become a painter. Intending to become a preacher he studied Latin and Greek in preparation for theological examinations. But an unexplained crisis caused him to abandon that plan and to pursue a different calling.

In December 1878 Van Gogh (1853-90) went to the village of Wasmes in the grim coal-mining region in southern Belgium called the Borinage. With virtually no money, he lived a life of abject poverty, even giving his own clothes to the poor. He stayed in a farmer’s house (left) which is now dilapidated, with its windows boarded up. The rear extension has lost part of its roof and is in danger of collapsing. Legal measures are being taken by the local authority to purchase the dilapidated building. The plan is to restore it and open it to visitors from 2015, the year when the neighbouring city of Mons will be European Capital of Culture.

Van Gogh felt an affinity for the lives of the local peasants and miners. Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo described the terrible working conditions:

“Everywhere around one sees the big chimneys and the immense heaps of coal at the entrance to the mines … Most of the miners are thin and pale from fever and look tired and emaciated, weather-beaten and prematurely aged, the women as a whole faded and worn. Round the mine are poor miners’ huts with a few smoke-blackened dead trees, thorn-hedges, dunghills, ash heaps, slag.”

He once spent six hours down a mine, guided by a man who had worked there all his life. Underground he discovered how the men worked in little cubicles, likening them to “cells in a beehive … or like the partitions in a crypt.” He saw children loading coal on horse-drawn carts by the light of lamps, nursed victims of explosions, cave-ins, fire and disease. He preached in an old dance hall, started a Bible school and – for a time – thought he had discovered his vocation.

Concerned about his welfare, Theo visited his brother to persuade him to return to city-life. Vincent subsequently went through a long period of intense crisis, remaining in the Borinage – although it is not known how he managed to feed and clothe himself. When he resurfaced, his religious fanaticism had vanished and he had decided to become an artist.

Van Gogh moved to another cottage in the village of Cuesmes (right) – today restored and open to visitors – where he set up a “studio” in the bedroom he shared with the small children of a miner. He paid the rent with money sent by his father and set to work to teach himself the techniques of art. Theo forwarded sheaves of prints for him to study and copy as well as textbooks on anatomy and perspective. Vincent responded by making sketches of the coal-miners and their surroundings, launching himself on a brief but brilliant career that ended just 12 years later in the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise, north-west of Paris.

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